Conquering Rome

Girls weekend in Rome.  This is Stacia on the steps of the Vittoriano

Girls’ weekend in Rome. This is Stacia “holding the flag” on the steps of the Vittorio Emanuele Monument

Rome is one of the oldest and biggest cities in all of Europe.  It is the capital of Italy.  It is crowded with tourists, residents, ruins and a whirl of streets, stores and steeples.  One of my plans this year was to be able to visit without getting lost.  Because Rome’s airport brings in most of our guests, we’ve made several trips to the eternal-ly confusing city.  I have sometimes gone through two maps while I’m there.  The first can become threadbare after just one long walk.

However, I love Rome.  It might be my favorite city in all of Italy.  When I’m there I feel happy and energetic and inspired.  I always leave wanting more.  After each trip, I feel like I’ve just begun.

This week was my fifth extended stay.  I met my friend Stacia who arrived Sunday to begin a summer job sailing around Sardinia. During our three days together, we walked down miles of ancient alleys, past innumerable fountains and impromptu piazzas while frequently stopping for drinks and Roman artichokes along the way.

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It was a perfect little vacation.  The temperatures soared into the 80s; the monuments glowed; the Romans were good to us; and we never got lost.  What a great feeling to finally grasp this place.

I kept my sense of direction by trying to visit familiar sights while keeping track of Il Vittoriano along the way.  This giant, centrally located, relatively modern landmark is an unfortunate sore spot among Romans. They snidely call it “the wedding cake” or “the typewriter” and remark that the monstrous, snow-white facade is incongruent with the true Roman style. And furthermore, they complain, it blocks the view of the Colosseum. I’ve tried to not like this building because I thought it might help me fit in, but I’ve finally resigned to the opinion that it’s stunning (and easy to find.)

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One of my favorite tourist stops in Rome is the glass elevator ride to the roof of the Vittoriano.  From there, you can see everything.  Stacia and I spent time up there taking photos and getting a lay of the land.  Since Rome can often dwarf the wide-eyed tourist, we  counteracted by playing “optical illusions” with the camera.

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These enormous statues on top of the monument don't look so enormous anymore.

These enormous statues on top don’t look so enormous anymore.

Later, we branched out from the safety of the beaming structure to mingle with a few more of Rome’s defining iconic anchors.  We circled Bernini’s sculpture in Piazza Navona, ate gelato in Campo de’ Fiori, walked past the president’s palace at Piazza de’ Quirinale and then, after a look at the crumbling Teatro di Marcello, we ordered the best artichokes ever in the Jewish Ghetto.  While we didn’t make any time for museums, some artists are hard to miss.  Michelangelo, for one, is everywhere.  We visited his Moses masterpiece in San Pietro in Vincoli and also climbed the steps to one of his architectural creations, Piazza del Campidoglio.  Then we continued on to more picturesque moments in Rome:

San Pietro in Vincoli: Just as many people visit The Chains that bound St. Peter as Michelangelo's Moses.

San Pietro in Vincoli: Just as many people visit The Chains that bound St. Peter as Michelangelo’s Moses.

High fivin' Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Piazza del Campidoglio

High fivin’ Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Piazza del Campidoglio

Besides many guide-book worthy

Besides the many guide-book worthy landmarks, we toured past other quintessential Roman details.  Fountains:  there are over 200 in this city.  Some are purely decorative, but many can be used for filling up water bottles or drinking straight from the source.  In ancient Rome, there were at least nine aqueducts that channeled water into the city for its inhabitants.  Some of them are still in use.

Because of all the protests, demonstrations and churches, Rome is full of cops and nuns.  The crowds of milling police are less intimidating than the groups of nuns.

And armed men: Because of all the protests and demonstrations, Rome is also full of cops.

On Tuesday afternoon, we packed up.  After parting ways at the train station, I headed back to Perugia.  Somehow Rome lingers. I know our traveling days are numbered so I immediately started planning another visit later this month, a quick 24 hour embrace;  just one last time to touch the familiar and find something new.

Piazza della Rotonda and the towering Pantheon

Piazza della Rotonda and the Pantheon

Pasta ‘Ncasciata

Last week with my parents

My dad and mom during a day trip to Spoleto

The best vacations need some continuation, something to take away;

something to unpack when the missing of those good days is heavy;

something to connect the rhythm and pace of the trip with the patterns and predictability of home;

something more than a souvenir.

The best vacations need to come home.

Last weekend, my parents left Perugia.  The day before their flight, my dad made a request.  He wanted to learn how to cook pasta ‘ncasciata.  This was his favorite meal in Italy, and he wanted it to be his “take-away.”

Pasta ‘ncasciata is a Sicilian specialty given to me by my friend Giulia.  Her family is from the south where eggplants are reportedly the most delicious eggplants in the country.  The name “’ncasciata” is a Sicilian word that may translate to either “cheese” or “pan.”  (There is some disagreement among Sicilians.)  Guilia says that both translations make sense since the pasta is cooked with cheese and baked in a pan.

So on the evening of my parents’ last day, we shopped, chopped, fried, simmered and layered until we had made a beautiful pan of pasta.

Begin with the following ingredients.

To make four big servings, begin with the following ingredients:

1 tablespoon of butter for greasing the pan

250 grams (8 ½ ounces) of pasta (macaroni or short penne)

3 tablespoons olive oil plus 2/3  cup

1 clove of garlic, chopped

1/3 diced onion

150 grams (5 ½ ounces) of sausage (remove casing)

150 grams (5 ½  ounces) ground veal

125 grams (4 ½ ounces) of peas, fresh or frozen

½ cup of red wine

500 grams (18 ounces) of purred tomato

125 grams (4 ½ ounces) of fresh ricotta

2 hard boiled eggs, sliced

50 grams (2 ounces) of diced or grated provolone

10 basil leaves

1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese

salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1.  Grease an oven-proof pan with the butter

2.  Slice the eggplant lengthwise and sprinkle with salt.  Then let it sit in a colander for 20 minutes so it can release its bitter juices.

cutting the eggplant

3.  Sauté the garlic and onion in three tablespoons of olive oil until onions are translucent.

4.  Add the sausage and ground veal and cook. Then add peas. Then wine.  Cook until the wine reduces (about five minutes). Then add the tomato puree.  Simmer slowly for 15-20 minutes.

While I fry the eggplant,

5.  In the meantime, rinse the slices of eggplant and pat dry with a paper towel.  Then fry them in 2/3 cup of olive oil on medium high heat until  golden brown.  Set aside on a plate lined with paper towels.

6.  Cook the pasta for half the time it calls for.  (It will continue cooking later in the oven.)  Drain the pasta.  Add it to the tomato sauce.  Add ricotta and mix well.  Tear the basil into pieces and stir in.

7.  Layer:  Begin with a third of the pasta and tomato sauce.  Cover with half the eggplants.  Add half the provolone and one of the sliced hard-boiled eggs.  Then add a layer of everything one more time saving a third layer of pasta for the top.  Sprinkle with a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese.

layer the pasta

8.  Cook in a 350 degree oven for 1/2 hour or until hot, bubbly and slightly brown on top.  Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

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. . . I just got an email from my dad.  The trip home was long.  They are tired.  The transition isn’t easy.  However, the first dinner they made after unpacking their bags was pasta ‘ncasciata.

Tourists in Perugia

My mom and dad are ready for the tour of Perugia

We’ve had 20 guests over the last nine months, the latest being my parents and my brother’s family. During the past couple weeks, we devoted several mornings to long walks around town and a tour of our favorite sites.  Our must-see list is always changing; we have new favorites all the time.  And while there really isn’t any required stop in Perugia, there are lots of little interesting things to do and see.

For a little dramatic punch, I like to start at the eerie, 2000-year-old Etruscan Well.  It’s right around the corner from our apartment, and it only takes about five minutes to see.  Once you enter, you can walk down a dark, damp, stone path to a bridge which crosses the base of the well.  The air is warm and humid.  It looks and smells ancient.

My dad and mom wave from down below.

My dad and mom wave from down below.

More Etruscan feats are found all over the city.  The enormous Etruscan Arch sits nearby.  When Caesar Augustus defeated the Etruscans, he carved the new name of the city on this arch, “Augusta Perusia.”

Oliver under the arch

And even more Etruscans ruins: five minutes outside the city is Ipogeno dei Volumni where 200 tombs are on display.  The best part is the walk into the dark underground chamber where the largest tombs lie.  On both sides of the stairway sit the carved stone urns which held the ashes of the dead.

Mom, Dad and Matt head below.

Back in the center of town, some important sights are found around the main square, Piazza IV Novembre.  First, there’s the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.  San Lorenzo is one of three patron saints of Perugia.  He was grilled to death by the Romans when Christianity was illegal.  Inside the church sits the wedding ring of Mary.  Yes, the actual wedding ring of the actual Virgin Mary.

My parents in Piazza IV Novembre.  Behind is the city's biggest fountain and the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.

From the main piazza, one can take Corso Vannucci to the other side of town.  On the way, there is the National Museum of Art, which is okay.  It’s a far cry from the Uffizi; however, if you like paintings of the Madonna with child, Tom and Ray counted more than 75. Next door is the Collegio del Cambio, a small room that was frescoed by Perugia’s most famous Renaissance artist, Pietro Vannucci, known as “Perugino.”  This is a more efficient stop for art.

Mom and Dad outside the doors of the Collegio di Cambio.  No photos allowed inside.

Mom and Dad outside the doors of the Collegio del Cambio. The frescos would make the top of my list for art in Perugia.

Corso Vanucci stretching across the historic center of town

Further down the street sits a piece of the Rocca Paolina, a huge fortress build by Pope Paul III to assert his dominance over the rebellious Perugians.  On it is the inscription, “To curb the audacity of the Perugians.”  We always take visitors down the escalators (underneath La Rocca) to see the remains of Perugia’s medieval city that Pope Paul destroyed. The Perugians later destroyed much of the fortress.

A corner of the Rocca Paolina

One of Perugia’s assets is its location high on top of the hills.  The benefit is a great view in every direction.  To simutaneously see the countryside and the city, we walk down Corso Garibaldi to Porta Sant’ Angelo.

The boys take in the view with their cousins last week.

And on the other side of town, in Piazza Italia, we can see two of Perugia’s most important churches, San Dominica and San Pietro.

My mom and I in Piazza Italia.

Finally, whether for coffee before the sites or a glass of prosecco after, we like to visit the oldest and most distinguished cafe in Perugia, Sandri.

Matt and my mom at the bar

Easter (and Easter Monday)

Easter Sunday with my parents in the courtyard of San Pietro

Together last weekend with my parents in the courtyard of San Pietro

Easter lasts for two days in Italy.  There is Easter Sunday (Pasqua).  And then there is Easter Monday (Pasquetta) which is equally important as far as holidays go.

This was my second Easter in Italy.  The first I spent in the region of Campagna 23 years ago with my dad and brother.  I remember it well.  That afternoon as we were walking throught the streets of Naples, a moped sped by me and ripped the backpack off my back.  (It contained our passports, our train tickets and all my money.)  I was able to hold on to the strap and run after the driver for a little ways before using my last ounce of strength to yank it back.  The force of my pull knocked the thief off balance. He started to topple before letting go of the backpack and speeding away.  I had rescued our goods.  It was my first ever sensation of bad-assness.
This year was also memorable but in a much less dramatic way. In fact, by Perugian standards, we had an ordinary Easter.  But that was my goal: to celebrate with local traditions.
We started Saturday night with a little visit to the nearest church.  We brought lots of food because Perugians get their Easter meal sanctified before eating it.  When we arrived, the priest was busy in the confessional, so we decided to bless the food ourselves.  Since my mom knows the most saints, we figured she should do the honors.  Using the holy water and wand from near the alter, she sprinkled a prayer and benediction on our groceries.
Here's my mom with priest tools giving our cheese bread a proper hallelujah

My mom uses the priest tools to give our cheese bread a proper hallelujah

The next morning, we arranged the spread.  Once a year, Perugians sit down to more than just a coffee for breakfast.  On Easter, tables are filled with capocollo (a cured meat), hard boiled eggs, cheese bread, wine and a cake called ciaramicola.
picture:  once a year, Perugians sit down to more than just a coffee and cigarette for breakfast.  On Easter morning, tables are filled with capocollo (a cured meat), cheese bread, hard boiled eggs, wine, and a frosted dessert called a ciaramicola  The boys also ate a giant chocolate egg with a toy surprise inside.

Breakfast

The boys also got giant chocolate eggs with a toy surprise inside.

The boys also got giant chocolate eggs with a toy surprise inside.

Then, of course, we joined the Catholics and went to mass.  Out of the 20 or more options in downtown Perugia, we chose the Church of San Pietro, an ornately decorated cathedral near the edge of town.
My mom and I spent the afternoon preparing lamb and artichokes.   Not quite sure how to cook lamb, I decided to fry it.  The Italians say that even the sole of a shoe tastes good when fried.  It worked.
My mom talked Ray into trying lamb.

My mom talked Ray into trying lamb.

The next day was Pasquetta.  Our friends Milena and Sergio invited us to their house in the country.  They wanted to meet my parents and introduce us to some of their relatives.  We joined them for a grand lunch starting with champagne, capocollo, cheese bread, wild asperagus and pecorino cheese.  This was followed by two platters of cannelloni, four types of grilled meats, artichokes prepared two ways and another big ciaramicola.  
A walk on the rolling, green, olive-tree-covered hills of Umbria

A walk on the rolling, green, olive-tree-covered hills of Umbria

Milena's mamma serves cannelloni.

Milena’s mamma serves cannelloni.

My parents pass around a bowl of meats

My parents pass around a bowl of meats

"Ciaramicola" - the rainbow sprinkled, meringue frosted Easter specialty of Perugia.

“Ciaramicola” – the rainbow sprinkled, meringue frosted Easter specialty of Perugia.  It’s red inside because of the bright liquor used to color it.

We ended the day with a walk gathering wild asparagus from around the trunks of olive trees.  Pretty cool.

For the first time since 2007, I’ve been enjoying holidays.  Distancing ourselves from past traditions, we get to peer into those of the Italians and participate as students of culture rather than as emotionally rooted members.

It’s true what they say about holidays being the hardest days.  When you lose the person with whom you celebrated, you lose the meaning as well.  Holidays have really sucked since Luke died.  Our family’s traditions faded away, yet we were still surrounded by everyone else celebrating the same old way.  This year, the physical distance from our culture’s customs, as well as having the distraction of another’s, has brought objectivity.  Discovery has replaced menacing compulsions; novelty has replaced stagnant etiquette; and the freedom to experiment has replaced the sense of obligation to assimilate with past traditions. Instead of running from the holidays, this year, I feel more inclined to step into them.

Spring Break

Biking in Lucca

The boys completed another week of character building at their respective schools.  They finally made it to Easter Vacation, a ten day break.

Unfortunately, after school, I was called in for a conference with Tom’s math teacher.  I knew it was going to be a doozy, so I asked Signora Paola, the boys’ tutor, to accompany me.  As a teacher herself, she is part of the inner circle of Italian educators.  Beyond that advantage, she is intelligent, fair, and understands Tom.

We wait in the halls of San Paolo Middle School.

We wait in the halls of San Paolo Middle School.

By 1:15, we entered the meeting.  We got an earful, and with it, I gained a greater understanding of Italian culture, something I should be grateful for, I guess.  The good news is that Tom got the highest grade on his math test that any 6th grader earned all year.  But he still didn’t show his work, which she didn’t like.  And he complains about the uniform, which she also didn’t like . . . among other things.

Oh well, he still gets three more months to adapt.

That afternoon, we caught a train to Pisa and began our vacation.  As it turns out, it was New Years Day in Pisa.  (They celebrate once on January 1st and once on March 23rd.)  Completely by accident, we reserved a room on the second floor of a hotel overlooking the Arno where the grand firework display was held at 11pm.  We seriously had the best seats in town, especially considering the pouring down rain drenching everyone below.  It was a spectacular show with music and two barges (one on either side of our windows) blasting off fireworks for 25 minutes.

A room with a view

A room with a view

The next morning, we walked to one of Italy’s most famous monuments, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  We circled around, climbed to the top, and joined hundreds of others in assuming unoriginal poses in front of our camera.

Trying to straighten the tower

Trying to straighten the tower

Pisa is big and festive and famous all smashed into one town.  I loved it, but after one day, I was ready to leave.  It’s like a party and hangover all in one.

Next we went to Lucca, a sweet, soft, small, walled Tuscan town.  Not only the name of the city reminds me of Luke but the streets too.  They were full of pink bikes.  One of my favorites was similar Luke’s first bike.

Another pink bike I liked was owned by a woman who gave us an impromptu tour of the outside of Puccini’s house-turned-museum the day we showed up after closing.

However, not all of Lucca is gentle.  We visited The Museum of Torture which I thought sounded entertaining, but turned out to be a huge bummer.  While it was a well-done exhibit, it left us all sick to our stomachs and hopeless.  It’s hard to believe that humans were (and still are) so capable of such psychopathic brutality.  It made my thumbs and tongue hurt, as well as my shoulders, bum and boobs.

A couple showcased devices from the first room

We tried to calm the disquietude by heading, yet again, to Trattoria Gigi, maybe the most charming little restaurant we’ve met.  In three days, we ate there three times.

This afternoon we left Lucca.  After stopping in Florence for a few hours to look at Michelangelo’s house, we caught a train to Rome and met my parents at the airport.  They are spending the second half of Spring Break with us as well as two additional weeks.  In preparation for Easter, we are planning on soaking up Catholic monuments including the Sistine Chaple and tons of churches.  This Sunday we will return to Perugia for a traditional Perugian Easter celebration which includes an unusual breakfast of hard boiled eggs, cake with rainbow sprinkles, and red wine.

Gramma and Grandpa with the kids here in Rome

Gramma and Grandpa with the kids here in Rome

The Art of Cars (written by Oliver)

by guest blogger Oliver

Tom, Ray and me in Florence

Tonight is my last night with the Deasys here in Perugia.  My mom and I have been here for 10 days.  We landed in Rome and stayed in a room right next to the Pantheon.  I was pretty jet lagged that first day so I don’t remember much.  The next day, I got to choose where we’d go, and I decided we should see the Sistine Chapel.  It’s at the far end of the Vatican Museum so it was a super long walk.  We saw about 500 paintings and sculptures that day.  Just before we got to the end, we walked through a small gallery with some modern art and found a painting that looked just like my mom.

Even the other tourists around us were laughing.

Then we went to Florence and saw The David, climbed to the top of the Duomo, and crossed the Ponte Vecchio.  We also ate tons of gelato.  After two days, we took a train back to Perugia and have been here ever since.

We have seen many churches, museums, towers and old arches, but the best part about Italy is the cars!

Lately, I’ve been really into cars.  I read Dupont Registry  on the plane ride over and then when I got here, I saw some of my favorites in person.

The Fiat 500

One of the most popular cars in Italy is the Fiat 500.  The Fiat 500 is an affordable, four-cylinder car.  This car is popular because of its size.  It can fit through the small streets of Italy with ease.  This car gets good gas mileage, somewhere between 25 and 30 miles per gallon.  The final thing is that it is a little sporty, and you can make it look cool with a little work.  For everyday use, these are the best all-around cars.

The Fiat 500

The Ferrari

The Formula One Ferrari that I saw in Rome  has a 12-cylinder engine that pumps out speeds of over 200 mph.  It’s not just the big engine that makes it fast.  Most of its speed secrets lie in the aerodynamics and the material of the car.  It’s made of carbon fiber and aluminum.

The Maserati

This car is the most amazing car I’ve seen in Italy.  The Maserati Quattroporte is one of the first Maserati 4-doors (as its name states).  This is an 8-cylinder sedan coupe.  It is priced around $130,000.  This car is large and only gets around 15 miles per gallon, though, if you can buy this car then the gas money shouldn’t really be a problem.

We saw this Maserati near our hotel in Rome.

The Fiat Punto

Yesterday I got to drive in a real Italian car when we took a day trip to Assisi.   We rented the Fiat Punto which is a cool, family style, sporty car equipped with manual transmission, like so many other cars in Italy.  It’s a medium-size car meant for five people, but we squeezed in six.   Also, I like the interior.  It has an easily accessable dash board and systems which make for comfortable, fast driving.  It was a good way to spend my last full day in Italy.

I wish I could stay longer.  I told my mom and the Deasys that I would like to live here for the rest of the year with them.  I could eat hot chocolate and cream filled pastries every morning for breakfast.  Tom, Ray and I could all share a bedroom, and I could be in Tom’s class at school. I could even get a job here because Cristiano, the pasta man, taught me how to make cappelletti.  This has been a really fun trip.

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Looking back on all the things we did and all the cars I saw, I still think the best part was hanging out with Tom and Ray.

Looking back on all the things we did and all the cars I saw, I still think the best part was hanging out with Tom and Ray.

Immersion

Milena and Tom study their lottery ticket.  If they win, they'll split 50-50.  It's a big one.  The numbers are drawn on Epiphany.  If Tom wins, he and Heidi will buy the apartment next door to us.

The Italians have their eyes on the BIG ONE tonight.  Here Tom and Milena are studying their lottery ticket.  They’ve decided to share the winnings 50-50 in the hopes that Tom and Heidi can move here permanently.

We have just two days left before my aunt and uncle return to the States.  I really wish that all our guests could stay for so long.  They’ve been here nearly a month.  We’ve had so much fun without ever feeling rushed.  We’ve had time to show them all of Perugia, several Umbrian towns, and then two extraordinary spots in northern Italy.

An afternoon at Perugia's San Pietro Cathedral and medieval gardens

An afternoon at Perugia’s San Pietro Basilica and medieval gardens

Visiting the art and antique fair in Arezzo.

Visiting the art and antique fair in Arezzo.

New Year's Eve in Venice.  We joined thousands in Piazza San Marco for the countdown.  The crowds were so great needed to hold hands so as not to get separated.  Even so, we lost Matt.  New Year's is crazy.  Over 350 people were injured in Italy.  And two deaths.  We returned to our hotel by 12:30 and watched the chaos from the window.

New Year’s Eve in Venice. We joined thousands in Piazza San Marco for the countdown and the shower of champagne. The crowd was so massive we needed to hold hands to stay together. Even so, we lost Matt for a while. New Year’s is crazy, so much so that over 350 people were injured in Italy. We returned to our hotel by 12:30 and watched the chaos from the window.

By now, Tom and Heidi have been here long enough to meet Italians and experience true Italian livin’.  They have made friends with our friends.  In fact, everyone who meets them wants to hang out.  This week Signora Paola, the boys’ tutor, invited us over for dinner.  And no experience is more authentic than eating a meal in an Italian’s house.

We showed up at 8pm, which is customary since Italians like to eat late.  Paola and her husband live outside Perugia on a small farm.  They have olive trees and a big garden.  As we arrived, Paola’s entire family was waiting for us.  We met everyone including her husband, two sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.  The table was full of drinks and appetizers, so we sat down immediately.  Paola’s husband, Willy, poured his homemade hot pepper apertif, which was made from infusing garden-grown peppers in alcohol for several weeks.  (We liked it so much that they later sent us home with a bottle.)  Then platters were passed and we filled our plates with chicken liver crostini, pieces of pork head, fennel and grapefruit salad, anchovy and egg crostini, pecorino cheese with an assortment of homemade spreads, and potato chips.  We were all full before the official first course.

The huge table filled the entire kitchen

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Then Paola served plates of mushroom pasta while explaining that her mother-in-law foraged the mushrooms out in the woods herself.  New bottles of wine were opened.  Knowing the boys weren’t mushroom fans, Paola offered a meat and tomato pasta for them.  The next course was wild boar with a side of broccoli rabe.  We were stuffed before the first bite; however, each dish was so good, we continued to eat and eat and eat.  Next came a plate of oranges drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper.  One bite and I was convinced that this is the best way to enjoy a slice of orange.

For dessert Paola and Willy offered five different kinds of cookies and three home made after-dinner-drinks.

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Before we left, Paola's son performed some magic tricks

Before we left, Paola’s son performed some magic

Tom got to be the magician's assistant, but still couldn't figure any of the tricks

Tom got to be the magician’s assistant but still couldn’t figure out any of the tricks.

While I would never have enough courage to cook an Italian meal for Paola, I asked if she would consider visiting us in the United States.  She agreed, so  maybe  someday we can return the favor.

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Christmas Chickens, Hats and Hunchbacks

It’s Christmas Day.

We celebrated in the morning with the annual routine:  wake up excited, open presents and then play.

Puzzles from Santa

Then the afternoon focused around local traditions.  As with every holiday in Italy, it’s all about cooking and eating. Months ago I started consulting friends and store owners and anyone I could talk to.  We found that three dishes comprise the traditional Perugian Christmas dinner.  Each recipe was described with swooning detail and passion.  I tried to listen carefully and take notes.  Each one sounded difficult, and they all required hours to prepare.   So we started early.  The past several days were full of visits to the butcher, the grocer and the vegetable market. This was followed by prep sessions in the kitchen.  Together with Matt, Tom and Heidi, we faced a handful of obstacles and put our heads together when problems needed solving.  We moderated recipes and finally made a delicious Perugian Christmas feast.

Preparing vegetables and meat for a stock

1.  Capelletti and Brodo  (little hats in broth)

I practiced making this one back in September.  I wrote the recipe in a post on pasta.  It’s the easiest of the three Christmas courses.  While the broth takes about three hours to cook, it can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator.  And with Cristiano down the street, I can skip making the capelletti by hand and just watch him make them.  (It felt like cutting corners, but everyone else is doing it.)   So this afternoon, we started with a bowl of capelletti and broth; our first course.

2.  Galantina (Christmas Chicken with a cup of gelled broth)

This dish is considered very Perugian.  Armando at the grocery store assured me that it’s so provincial that you won’t even find it served in nearby Assisi. Basically, it’s a whole skinned and deboned chicken that is then ground with veal, prosciutto, pistachios, eggs, parmesan cheese, salt and nutmeg. Then all the ingredients are wrapped up in the chicken skin and sewed up with a regular needle and thread before being boiled for two hours, pressed under a heavy weight for another hour and then chilled overnight.   People looked at me skeptically when I said I was making it.  “It’s very difficult,” they reminded me.  Rinaldo, the butcher, walked me through it.  He deboned my chicken and removed the skin in one entire piece.  He ground all my meat for me and explained the process.

Stuffing the skin

Stuffing the skin

Tom sewed like a surgeon

Tom sewed like a surgeon.

3.  Gobbi Parmesan (layered hunchback with meat sauce and cheese)

“Gobbi” means hunchback in Perugian dialect.  In Italian it’s “cardi.” In English it translates to “cardoon.”  It’s a member of the artichoke family.  When it’s ready to be picked, it falls over a bit, resembling a hunchback.  Anyway, I made the meat sauce for the dish several days ago.  Then yesterday I went to Marcello’s vegetable stand to get my gobbies.  But there were none left.  Apparently, no one waits until Christmas Eve to start preparations on this bad boy.  There was one produce seller with a couple boxes left, but they were wilted and brown.  So I decided to make eggplant parmesan instead.  In doing so, I bypassed hours of gobbi cleaning, stripping, and boiling.  And the final product looks similar.

the word in Italian is "brutto"

Heidi fries the eggplant

It all came together this afternoon.  We poured prosecco and toasted to being together and our attempts at creating an authentic Italian Christmas dinner.

DSC_0102

A plate of galantina and meat gel.  Trust me, it was great.

The evening is winding down.  Aunt Deanne and Uncle Richard gave us the six Star Wars movies for Christmas.  We are already on the second one. Merry Christmas and lots of love from Perugia.

One Beer in “Perugia” (written by Tom, Jill’s uncle)

written by guest blogger Tom, Jill’s uncle

This is me

This is me.

I’m Jill’s uncle.  My wife and I live in Oregon on a hazelnut farm.  When Jill and Matt invited us to visit them during their year away from Seattle, we were honored.  Even though the price of gasoline had gotten pretty high and Pullman, Washington was a full day’s drive from our farm, we thought, why not?  It can’t be more boring than waiting for the leaves to fall.

The Deasy's met us on North Grand Avenue across the street from the Cordova Theater.

The Deasy’s met us on North Grand Avenue across the street from the Cordova Theater.

The Four Square Church folks are really sweet, and they let Jill use the old theater prop department down in the basement for her blog anytime she wants.  Right away, Tom and Ray were excited to give us a tour of the place, “Wait ’til you see the Moon Room!”  Turns out this is where NASA filmed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they “landed” on the moon in 1969.  With a resource like The Cordova, Matt and Jill figured Pullman would be the perfect place to spend their year in “Perugia”.

Matt driving the "Moon Rover" on the set.  It's actually an Italian made ATV.  How ironic is that!?

Matt driving the “Moon Rover” on the set. It’s actually an Italian made ATV. How ironic is that!?

This is the apartment at 600 SW Crest View Street where we are staying with the Deasys.

This is the apartment at 426 NW Crestview Street where we are staying with the Deasys.

Good old apartment #25.  Heidi and I are renting their Bonus Room/Laundry Closet for the next three weeks which is a win-win because face it, there’s no money in farming, and Matt and Jill are unemployed for at least a year.

Check out the bathroom.  A shower, a tub AND a sink.

Check out the bathroom. A shower, a tub AND a sink.

This is a photo of the "Mediterranean" climate taken from inside the apartment of our "quiet" neighbors two doors down in #27.

This is a photo of the “Mediterranean” climate taken from inside the apartment of our “quiet” neighbors two doors down in #27.  They weren’t home; we were just looking around after the cops left.

After an Italian breakfast last Sunday, I went with Jill to the basement of the Cordova to watch her work on her blog.  She is amazing.  Her camera skills are only matched by the rabbits she pulls out of hats with Photoshop.  Look at what she did with the picture I took of her family in downtown Pullman.

Sunday afternoon in Piazza del Duomo

Sunday afternoon in Piazza del Duomo

Get a load of that caption!  It’s sounds so Italian it hurts.  It’s pure misdirection, like a good card trick.  You see the photo, you read that text and “fish on,” you’re hooked.

I’m just so proud to be Jill’s uncle, and I’m especially proud that she included me in her trip to Italy.  Here are the two of us at the Colosseum:

Nice

Nice

Thank you so much Matt, Jill, Tom and Ray for being the best neighbors in the world.  After the cops left.

Our Company

Tom, Jill, Heidi, Ray, Richard, Deanne, Tom and Matt

Matt’s sister and brother-in-law are visiting until the end of the week, and my aunt and uncle are here for almost a month.   We’ve filled our days with short trips to nearby cities and lots of time here in town.  We been both tourists and residents in Perugia, and it’s been so much fun.  It’s different having such close family here.  There is so much understanding each other.

Richard juggling clementines

Everything is more detailed with eight people.  With everyone’s background and perspective, we notice more.  Take beer, for example.  I think Umbria makes good beer.  I can appreciate the labels and pretty bottles.  But with the help of Tom and Heidi, who grow hops and make their own IPA, we are learning to recognize the subtleties of each Umbrian brew.  For the first time, the local beer is more than just “good.”  It’s complex and colorful.  Some even have hints of coriander (which I never would have detected in a hundred years).

Most of us chose the "lentil beer" in the middle as our favorite

Beer tasting

Grocery shopping and dinner is more interesting too.  Since we are twice as big, we get to eat more.  The other day for lunch, we bought eleven types of cured meats, five types of cheeses, three different breads and four Christmas desserts.

one particular pecorino cheese aged 8 months in a well.  But it was still good.

Four seasonal desserts: a tiny panatone, a plate of almond cookies, a eel shaped almond flavored torciglione and slices of almond torrone

Four seasonal desserts: a tiny Christmas panatone, a plate of almond cookies, a eel-shaped, almond-flavored torciglione and slices of white, almond torrone.

Some other highlights this week included a day trip to Assisi.  All eight of us squished in the car and drove to the woods high above the town to see where St. Francis lived and prayed.  Later we had lunch, walked to the famous cathedral, saw St. Clare’s entire preserved body, and visited the 2000-year-old Roman temple.

Tom and Heidi arround the Temple of Minerva in Assisi

Piazza

Yesterday, while the boys were at school, the adults visited the nearby city of Deruta.  We talked with the ceramic craftsmen and bought more plates.  We toured a three-story nativity display that featured the works of 40 artists.  On the way home, we got stuck in traffic and were a half hour late to get the boys from school.  I had to call the landlady of Tom and Heidi’s apartment to ask her to pick them up.

Group photo with Monica from

Group photo with Monica from Maioliche Artemisia

This morning we went shoe shopping.  Deanne, Heidi and I looked at a pair of plastic high heals.  The salesman pointed out that they smell like Starbursts when you wear them.

They are even waterproof

We have two more days before Richard and Deanne leave and about two weeks of plans to fit into that time.   Richard is throwing an Italian wine tasting tomorrow night.  Uncle Tom’s going to make beef tongue.  There’s an ancient well down the street we need to see.  Plus a Raphael fresco.  Then a castle.  And some Etruscan tombs just outside the city wall.  And if there is time, we are going to try and cook black truffle pasta for dinner tomorrow.

Olive Harvest

Sergio and Milena’s olive trees 

In November, Italians harvest olives.  Especially in Umbria, where the weather and terrain provide optimal conditions, olives grow everywhere.  Our friends Milena and Sergio live on a hillside overlooking Perugia.  They cultivate more than 100 tress.  Their grove produces enough oil to last their family for a year.  On Sunday, with our friend Rose and several of their friends, we arrived to pick the last of the crop and then join them for dinner.

I knew nothing about harvesting olives before this day.  But by the end of the afternoon, it seemed pretty simple.  We began by spreading a large net around the trunk which then extended beneath the widest branches.  Then we surrounded the tree and picked the olives, dropping them onto the net.  The men would take turns shaking the olives off the top with a heavy rake that vibrated with enough strength to knock them off the limbs.  After the olives were collected, we’d transfer them to crates.

Matt uses the electric machine to get the fruit off the top of the tree while Giovanni works on the olives below

Rose makes a second round to find any last olives.

These are “moraiolo” olives that need to be picked by hand since they cling firmly to their branches.

Taking a break for a picnic lunch

Matt moves the supplies to another group of trees.

We finished with the last tree just before dark.  After boxing up the olives and supplies, we came inside and prepared dinner.  We started with chestnuts and red wine.  Soon, more people showed up.  By 8:30, we sat down to eat.  The traditional first course for a harvest dinner is grilled bread rubbed with garlic and soaked in oil.  The previous day’s olives were cold-pressed for tonight’s dinner.  The oil was dark green, cloudy, spicy, and delicious.  Next we had huge plates of spaghetti, roasted pork, potatoes, two different kinds of salad, another chestnut course, three types of dessert and espresso.  The most entertaining part of dinner was a language competition between Matt and Giovanni: Matt with Italian nouns vs. Giovanni’s English nouns.  It was close.  I think both men walked away feeling victorious.

The end of the night: grappa, amara, and banana liqueur are served while we talked about our favorite Italian foods.

The kids had their own dinner in the other room.  They took breaks between courses to listen to music and dance.  The Italian kids introduced Tom and Ray to “Gangnam Style.”  Rose gave them a more formal lesson the next morning.  (I had no idea about the dance revolution taking over the world.)  By midnight we started cleaning up and then went home.  One of the guests asked how this evening’s dinner would compare to an Italian restaurant back home.  We assured them it could compete with the very best.

Top Ten of Taormina

We’ve spent the last five days in Sicily with the Halls. It began on Sunday with an overnight train from Rome.   By 8:30 on Monday, we arrived in Taormina, a beautiful town tucked into a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  There were a couple glitches with our hotel rooms, but the staff made up for it with some fancy upgrades.  And here we’ve spent our days on a little vacation in the most southern region of Italy.

Except for some awesome restaurant suggestions, we’ve ignored most of the local recommendations, choosing instead to play cards by the pool all day.   So while there may be some pretty important sites and attractions we’ve missed, there are no regrets about the following highlights of our visit.

1.  The Poolside.  It’s been 95 degrees every day.  The pool is perched above an expansive view of the sea and the nearby beach town of Naxxos.  It is surrounded with lounge chairs and umbrellas.  And there is a bar and restaurant which serve platters of antipasto and a full lunch from 11 to 4.  We spend at least six hours here every afternoon.

2.  Mt. Etna.  This is the tallest active volcano in Europe.  It’s right up the hill from us.  It’s been smoking constantly since we arrived.

3.  Marmalade.  Citrus is a Sicilian specialty.  Always within arm’s reach of our poolside chairs, there grow lemon trees.  Oranges garnish our apertivos.  And the first decision I make every morning is what to spread on my toast at breakfast.  The kitchen has a display of seven big jars of marmalade including blond orange, blood orange, bitter orange, lemon, and mandarin orange. (There is also a jar of fig and prickly pear jam.)

4.  The Mediterranean Sea.   We ventured beyond the hotel once for a little outing.  On Wednesday, we booked a two-hour excursion on a boat to see Taomina’s Blue Grotto and swim in the salty, blue Mediterranean Sea.  This is the cleanest, prettiest water ever.

5.  Sardine Pasta.  This is one of the best plates of pasta I’ve had since we arrived in Italy three weeks ago.  Sardines.  Go figure.

6.  The View.  From our hotel room or on a walk to dinner, you see it all from Taormina.

7.  The Halls.   Being with friends during this past week has been the highlight.  The boys are happy all the time.   They have two of their best friends to hang out with all day.  And at this age, they are so independent.   We even get them their own table at dinner.  And for me, one of the best things about being with Deac and Lynn is how much we all laugh.   It is such a good feeling to have my stomach tired from all the laughing.  Their visit came at such a perfect time to break up all the work we’ve been doing while trying to move and settle in to Perugia.

That’s not quite 10, but like I said, we’ve sacrificed some of the sites for an extra game of cards or another drink by the pool.  No regrets.